A dead mother whale and her male calf stranded on a New Zealand beach have been identified as spade-toothed beaked whales, Mesoplodon traversii, previously only known from bones.
The rare whales washed up at Opape Beach on the north coast of the North Island in 2010, where they were photographed and sampled by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. At the time, they were identified as Gray’s beaked whales, which are much more common.
However, the mistake was realized following a routine DNA analysis as part of a two-decade program gathering data on beaked whales around New Zealand.
“This is the first time this species—a whale over five meters in length—has ever been seen as a complete specimen, and we were lucky enough to find two of them,” said Rochelle Constantine at the University of Auckland in a press release.
“Up until now, all we have known about the spade-toothed beaked whale was from three partial skulls collected from New Zealand and Chile over a 140-year period.”
“It is remarkable that we know almost nothing about such a large mammal.”
This is the first complete description of the species. It is unknown why the whales are so elusive.
“It may be that they are simply an offshore species that lives and dies in the deep ocean waters and only rarely wash ashore,” Constantine concluded. “New Zealand is surrounded by massive oceans.”
“There is a lot of marine life that remains unknown to us.”
The findings were published in Current Biology on Nov. 6, and highlight the importance of DNA typing and reference collections for rare species identification.
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